Revisiting slurs and the argument from etymology

When the most recent wave of discussion about the Washington NFL football team’s name first began to gain some steam, I wrote a bit about the use of the “argument from etymology” as a means of denying the offensiveness of the term. As the conversation is again becoming heated, and the owners and (some) fans are digging their heels in, Ives Goddard is quickly becoming the “linguist for non-linguists” du jour. A Language Log post by Bill Poser from 2006 also analyzes the etymology of the term, in less academic prose, and with reference to the counterpoints by Suzan Harjo, one of the original leaders of the movement to remove the name. Harjo (apparently – this is not linked or referenced in the Poser post) argues that the term originates in violent practices and displays of “bloody red skins and scalps”.

There are some pretty strong parallels between this case and the case of “Squaw Peak” that Jane Hill discusses in the book The Everyday Language of White Racism. Hill shows in that book how, in the debate about whether or not a name should be changed because it contains a slur, those (predominantly white) people who are uncomfortable with the name change use various resources to defend their self-perception as “non-racists”. Within these justifications, they will often invoke what she calls the “baptismal ideology” (what I had been referring to as “the argument from etymology”). In that case, just as here, Goddard is brought in as the authoritative source that the term has an innocuous origin, with the – totally erroneous, as Goddard never weighs in on the question of whether either of these terms should be considered a slur in contemporary contexts – next-step claim being that the sanction of a credentialed linguist means that it’s not a problem.

The baptismal ideology recurs over and over in discussions about slurs and the seemingly desperate desire of white people to use them while also reassuring themselves that they are not racists. I have similarly seen word origins – invented or well-supported – used to debate which slang terms for female body parts are positive and affirming and which ones reflect patriarchal sex roles, to suggest that a well-known slur used against gay men is among the most heinous possible words, and to suggest that we should also remove from our lexicons additional, relatively common terms with opaque but problematic histories. While I, personally, find these arguments politically unconvincing, something about them clearly resonates that leads to their being brought up so frequently. Hill traces it to the Christian myth of degeneration/loss of the true meanings of things, originally coming from God and having been lost through the Tower of Babel story. The original meaning of something, as best as we can access it post-Babel I suppose, therefore becomes the true meaning. Those who argue that it is a slur may still have a sense that origin matters, and draw on hypothesized or alternative etymologies to support the idea that the true meaning of the term is a problem.

The power of this baptismal ideology is, academically speaking, intriguing to me. Morally and politically speaking, I find it frustrating. Because for me, the most relevant question is how the term is used, perceived, and interpreted now. Speaking as an academic, I also feel as though articles like Poser’s and other commentary often make us look bad, as they reinforce the sense that we are out of touch with an disengaged from the realities that matter to the people we are talking about. As a case in point, during a twitter conversation in which I was briefly involved, a critic of Native American mascot imagery responded to a Goddard link with the comment

As others noted in response…from the perspective of linguistic history? Sometimes, yes. Goddard has spent an awfully significant amount of time over many, many years doing this as his full time job. But from the perspective of why it matters in the contemporary context, of how a term like that makes them feel, of the ways in which it constitutes a slur and a reminder of their status as outsiders, others, racialized inferiors, of course notOverall, I do think that the evidence points in Goddard’s favour, and he likely is correct that both the football team name and the name of the mountain in Arizona were not originally hateful or violent terms. I also think that both of these terms are clearly slurs now and have no business standing in as the names of public entities/landmarks.

But more than that, I wonder about the erasure of the in-between history of these terms, the process by which they have become slurs, and within that, the possible sources of the racist/violent/hateful etymology stories offered by Harjo and others who have been the target of these terms. The tweet above criticizes both linguists and those who cite them for claiming a stronger understanding of the true meaning of the terms than those who experience them most viscerally, and this is a valid critique on a lot of levels. Even if Goddard provides evidence to support the idea that the non-racist meanings are older than the ones that Harjo invokes, that certainly does not imply that these alternate meanings are invented out of nowhere. We owe it to the slur’s victims to listen to these stories, to consider where they might come from, how they have become a part of the history of the term, and where these meanings have been erased from the written, if not emotional, record of its use.

Emotionally weighty and politically controversial words like slurs have meaning far beyond their literal denotative meaning, either historical or contemporary. In case it is in any way unclear, I side completely with those who believe the name should be changed. I think all contrary arguments, etymological and otherwise, are spurious and irrelevant in the face of a not insignificant number of people saying it hurts and demeans them. I have yet to see any argument that convinces me that changing the name would cause any other people and equal or greater amount of pain. And that, to me, is the point that matters. This additional conversation is mainly about how the story has become one of truth, meaning, and authority, and what we can do to move beyond the “linguists vs. Indigenous people” dynamic that comes into play here.

Individualism, Confidence, and Care

I’ve been thinking a bit about the recent conversation about the female “confidence gap” as the latest anti-feminist wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s old news, really – another installment in the seemingly never-ending series on how to blame the victims of structural power imbalances while appearing to offer concrete, helpful suggestions. And I do understand how this is important, because structures are overwhelming, and the human need to feel like there is something we can do to improve our personal circumstances is very much a need, as my dear friend @anma_sa pointed out on Twitter last week.

And this connected, in my head, anyway, to something I’ve been thinking a lot about with regard to the discourse of “self-care” that has become, it seems to me, ubiquitous. Now, the significance of convincing people, especially women, and especially those involved in caring professions and/or activist efforts, that putting themselves on the list of people who have needs to be met is certainly not lost on me. I have watched many a loved one burn out and suffer serious health issues because they feel they cannot stop working to meet the very real and very deep needs of others for long enough to meet their own, which inevitably seem smaller, less significant, easier to put aside. When you are caring for others who are facing addictions, suicidal thoughts, abusive relationships, and whatever else, it seems selfish to just feel tired and want a break. In that regard, I am grateful for this discourse that helps shift us from feeling “selfish” to recognizing the need for “self-care”.

But on another level, I am frustrated by it. Because in some ways, it feels like a much more well-meaning version of the individual solution to structural problems, another reinforcement of individual agency that simultaneously becomes a reinforcement of individual responsibility. I started to draft this post last week, at a time when I was feeling particularly exhausted, and basically started over because it came out really whiny, but one of the things I was feeling then was that self-care very quickly becomes yet another thing I can fail at, and yet another way I am not living up to my own expectations. The thing is, I am terrible at self-care. I can’t even tell you how many people in my life, from academic supervisors to friends to counsellors, have given the “reward yourself after finishing X task” suggestion, and I always smile and nod, and have absolutely no idea what such a reward should really look like. And the daily stuff – the exercise, the eating, the sleeping, the taking time to do something just for me – requires a level of routine that I have never managed to implement. So mostly, really, self-care for me looks like not expecting these things of myself, maybe making a few incremental comfort changes here and there, and getting okay with that.

My own strategies for self-care, though, are not really the point here. My point is that I’m frustrated by the limitations of an ethic of care that perpetuates individualism and in some ways, reinforces the mercenary mentality of capitalist society. The sense that “if I don’t do it for myself, no one is going to do it for me” may be true, but it’s sad, to me. And in saying it to the people that have been caring for others, I can hope that we are helping to prevent that burnout and those health issues I mentioned above, but we are also telling them that the “everyone is in it for themselves” mentality is, on some level, true.

Like the many others who have critiqued the ‘confidence gap’ and Lean In and all of the other versions, old and new, of capitalism in heels, I don’t want to practice an activism that focuses on individual effort to overcome barriers on behalf of the individual. I also don’t want to practice an ethic of care that emphasizes the self. I know this puts me in a position where my only personal course of action is to not really embrace ‘self-care’, and I know this puts me in a position of caring for others as a primary means of fighting what I believe to be a destructive and anti-communitarian impulse within North American society. It’s probably fortunate that I suck at self-care anyway, because I’m not missing much in the end.

Being in the Academy

A week or so ago, I had a brief twitter exchange with Aberdeen PhD student Zoe Todd, after she asked

I responded at the time, among other things, that I sincerely believe that the simple act of having a conversation about ourselves as spiritual beings in the academy counts as something. As anthropologists in particular, we have an ability to talk about diverse forms of spirituality and diverse ontologies in ways that can be quite radical in contrast to the dominant public discourse. But as scholars, we  – particularly those of us who are not also members of Indigenous or other marginalized communities – also have a tendency not to apply those ways of thinking to ourselves and our own lives. This becomes, ultimately, a way of perpetuating the idea of a detached observer, no matter how reflexive the observation process may become. We discuss engagement and collaboration, but this engagement happens in the context of our fieldwork, as a way of bringing our academic knowledge to bear on the spiritual, political, and personal experiences that are happening to others. While I do believe that the reverse happens, and remains, as Todd points out, the default state of being for many Indigenous academics, I don’t feel as though we have a set of commonly accepted ways of talking about that side of the equation.

This short article by Ilana Gershon summarizing some of her work on media ideologies and neoliberalism made me think about these questions in a different way, and it is clear that this is a state of being that is, of course, not unique to the academy. The neoliberal self, the self that requires that state of constant flexibility and responsiveness to the conditions being asked of us in order to ensure that we can meet our basic, material needs, is inherently not a personal one, and it is most certainly not a spiritual one. What is different in the academy is the degree to which we – and again here, I especially mean scholars who belong to dominant cultural groups, with recognition that this is not an either/or binary of dominance/marginalization or belonging/not – study what it means to be a spiritual self, and talk about ways of being in the world, and analyze, and detach, and represent, while at the same time struggling to apply that to manifesting our own selves. The uncertain and precarious nature of academic employment, especially in the early stages, creates an anxiety about being anything other than a properly critical academic citizen.

I am speaking here from a place of preliminary senses based on my personal feelings and observations, mostly as a way of getting some ideas and impressions out on the topic. I do know that there are spaces for talking about these questions among some groups of academics, and I certainly know that the ways in which such anxiety and uncertainty can be dehumanizing and inhumane is being discussed among many who contest the adjunctification of academic labour. By coincidence, I have just now come across this piece from last year by Andrea Smith in which she takes on some of these gut feelings of mine in a much more thorough and extensive analysis. As Smith highlights,  white/settler confessions of privilege become ways of achieving an ally identity, of constructing a critical self that is above/beyond the politics of recognition because it does not require recognition, it chooses it. Quoting Hiram Perez, she discusses the “abstract theorizing” used by the white subject to constitute him or herself in light of a consciousness of anti-racist/colonial struggles that make the default assumption of self-determination clearly problematic – but that continue to rely on an abstract theorization about and in relation to the concrete, material realities of “fixed, brown bodies”. Likewise, in discussing the acceptance of different ways of being spiritual, different ways of being personal, different ways of being and how these might contribute to a reshaping of the academy, the self-reflexive white settler academic works primarily to make space for it, to recognize it, to describe it, to theorize it – not to be it. Being it remains primarily the purview of those who are stuck in their political bodies. Being different, being spiritual, being personal, being political are all elements that are of course extremely challenging and dangerous for those who do not fit the white/settler mold, and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that this is an easy thing to do or space to occupy. What I mean to point out is that in the way we have made these realities something that we talk about for them, we have yet to detach ourselves from a one-way ethnographic gaze.

And of course, I think much of this is as related to the academic self as part of the great machine of capitalist production as it is to identity dynamics. In that regard, the academy is just one workplace among many, and as Gershon discusses so well, the increasing merger of our professional identities into our personal lives is pervasive and stressful. One of the privileges of academic life, though, is that we get to talk about this and we get to ask these questions. And the question is becoming, for me at least, not how to adapt my personal self to better achieve my professional goals – though they are important to me, and I value those goals as a part of who I am, politically, personally, and spiritually – but how to be fully human within my professional realities. In returning to Todd’s question above, I think that while a very small way to think about those goals, it is the only way that I have to start.

Reflections on my first job-having semester

As I sit here, working from home on the first day of the final exam period that marks the end of my first semester in a real, grown-up academic job, I find myself repeatedly mulling over some thoughts that I suspect I will want to remember in future years.

It has, on the whole, been a fantastic semester – I’ve been more productive than I anticipated in terms of research/writing goals, and less terrified of the still-steep learning curve I’m on in regard to teaching expectations. My instincts about the department I would be walking into have generally borne out in all the right ways. Even the weather has been cooperating with me, as a polar vortex consumed the part of the country I flew out of and this Northern prairie town has seen some flashes of downright warm weather dating all the way back to January.

It has also been a far more difficult semester than I imagined, characterized by constant adjustment and a still-in-flux sense of how to return to a mindset of juggling multiple brain-intensive tasks and fitting them into short and frequently interrupted time spans. The trajectory of post-secondary schoolwork goes gradually from this type of scheduled structure with multiple small tasks that require organization and deadline tracking to an increasing focus on self-directed mini-goals towards the production of one giant tome. And then in my case, immediately after finishing said tome, I have been rather jarringly thrown back in to a calendar with lots of “busy” slots on a daily/weekly basis and even more deadlines occupying the “all day” zones of my planner. The difficulty comes partially from being out of practice at this type of work and partially from the much higher expectations about the quality of work I will be able to produce in those suddenly re-shortened windows of opportunity, not to mention trying to do so on an unpredictable amount of sleep. My ever-slow-to-teethe child seems to have chosen this week to molars, for example, when I was hoping to focus some brain power on some real writing now that my daily workload has been lessened somewhat by the end of classes.

I am grateful for the experienced academic friends and acquaintances who have reached out when they saw some fraying around the edges – or possibly nearing the centre – of my sanity, simply saying “This is normal. It will pass”. I continue to hold out hope that this will also be true of the sleep uncertainties, but so far, working towards acceptance seems the more productive solution to that form of suffering. And maybe the “It will pass” aspect will come as I am more able to accept the new normal of a constantly changing schedule at both home and work, and the reality that “routine” is something that I will always feel is just out of my reach, or that I managed to develop for a week or a month before being diverted into a new semester schedule, a new service position, a new childcare dropoff/pickup regime, or a new molar.

There are particular challenges – but also some weirdly intangible advantages – to starting mid-year, when people are already established in the rhythms of the academic calendar and the introductions and welcome back structures aren’t quite so prevalent. The sense of being out-of-place and constantly one-step behind has become paradoxically comforting, and the light at the end of the school-year tunnel is closer, like I’ve gotten to try out a half marathon instead of the full one my first go-round (though it comes immediate after completing the Iron Man triathlon that was the dissertation wrap up/job market process of last semester).

With all the busy-ness and the schedule shifting and the disentangling myself from the feelings of pressure, it’s easy to lose sight of what the real learning process has been here. It occurs to me that a lot of the adjustment I’m currently experiencing comes down to the fact that for the first time, in what feels like a rather sudden but has in fact been quite a gradual process, I have lost any illusion that I am not yet a Grown Up. I am not a student anymore. I have a Real Job. The past few years of my life have been characterized by near-constant transition, not just in the recent past (as is of course still the case now, what with the cross-country move and the double take I still do when I look at my license plate) but also in the coming future, often with a heaping dose of uncertainty piled on top. And it’s actually surprisingly hard, after all of that, to sit still and realize I’m just here. I’m not moving to the next thing, or halfway between one and another, or wondering about the next disruption to my efforts to settle down.

Nothing I have to say about this is particularly insightful or enlightening, but for my own sake, at least, I feel the need to demystify and rehumanize some of what it means to be where I am in my career and in my life. Most of these experiences are learning of the practice variety rather than of the instructional or informational variety, so their utility to the broader public is likely limited, but I suspect that my future self might read them and realize that for whatever reason, I will need to learn them again in future forms, and so it goes.